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The Charles Lyell fossil collection at the Natural History Museum

Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) is one of the most important geologists of all time and was the pioneer of the principle of uniformitarianism. He was able to see that the present is the key to the past and that the geological processes that have shaped the Earth are not the consequence of catastrophes but routine processes we can observe today.

The Lyell Collection contains 1,735 specimens including fossils of reptiles, mammals, fishes, plants, bryozoans, brachiopods, trilobites, echinoderms, worms and molluscs, being the last ones the biggest part of the collection. Other specimens that are in these collections are the recent brachiopods that Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) collected from Tierra del Fuego or Galapagos during his trip on board of the Beagle and later gave to Charles Lyell. There are also 13 specimens more that were probably collected by Lyell. Although these ones do not have any label with them, some have numbers glued with similar handwriting to that of Charles Lyell.

Lyell Collection was constantly increasing by collection, purchase, exchange and gift.

Charles Lyell’s specimens came to the NHM (Natural History Museum) through different sources. Most of them were donated by Charles Lyell during his life in different dates, but others were given to the Geological Society and posteriorly this transferred them to the NHM in 1911. Also Leonard Lyell (1850 – 1926), Charles Lyell’s nephew, and other heirs, such as Sophie Mary Lyell (born Trafford) (1916-2012), 2nd Baron Lyell’s wife, donated more specimens after Charles Lyell’s death, in 1913 and 1980.

The last acquisition of Lyell’s specimens came in 1980 donated by Lady Lyell, Sophie Mary Lyell, who gave a shark tooth, Carcharodon angustidens, Agassiz, 1843 (specimen with the registration number NHMUK PV P 60903). This collection keeps very interesting specimens, not only from the scientific and taxonomic nature of the item, but also striking samples. Charles Lyell was interested in collecting specimens for scientific reasons such as volcano formation. Most of this collection was made due to his curiosity on volcanic deposits.

Lyell was studying the fossils that was receiving from Maffiotte during some years later, exchanging letters with other researchers as Leonard Horner (1785 – 1864), Charles Bunbury (1809 – 1886), George Hartung (1821-1891), William Lonsdale (1794-1871) and George Busk (1807-1886) in order to determinate the sample. Maffiotte was disappointed that Lyell did not publish on these fossils, with the exception of some comments in the 6th edition of Elements of Geology (1865). He was more interested in the volcanic deposits of these islands. Due to success of this work, he increased his research in it and he didn’t have enough time to study the fossils picked up in the Gran Canaria and publish the promised book on Canaries Islands. So, in 1866 the correspondence ended between Maffiotte and Lyell.

After visiting these volcanic islands Lyell concluded that Madeira and Canaries have been built up gradually by volcanic action.

Lyell was also interested in dividing up his Tertiary classification into systems and for this he collected numerous Tertiary molluscs from Sicily and many other localities of Denmark, Sweden and Norway and the Red Crag of Suffolk and Norfolk, completing this Tertiary collection with specimens bought from Gérard Paul Deshayes (1795 -1875) which he later gave to Gideon Algernon Mantell (1790-1852) in 1829. Most of the Scandinavian specimens finished up in the OUNHM presented by Lyell’s newphew, Leonard Lyell, and the English ones at the NHM through Charles Sowerby. This one figured many of the Lyell specimens in his Mineral Conchology and came to the NHM after Sowerby’s death (probably James de Carle Sowerby [1787-1871]).

Data and Resources

Cite this as

Consuelo Sendino (2017). Dataset: The Charles Lyell fossil collection at the Natural History Museum. Natural History Museum Data Portal (

Retrieved: 09:55 28 Jan 2022 (GMT)

Additional Info

Field Value
Affiliation Natural History Museum
Primary contributors
Sendino, Consuelo ( 0000-0003-4823-2145)
Other contributors
Update frequency Daily
Last updated June 22, 2017
Last resource update June 22, 2017 (Waterhouse Times Magazine)
Created June 22, 2017
License Creative Commons Attribution